Bessie W. Kaufman

The volunteer worked to trace the fates of people who fell victim to the Nazis during World War II

March 02, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,

Bessie W. Kaufman, a longtime volunteer with the Baltimore-based Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center that helps families locate and learn the status of relatives who were last seen in Europe during World War II, died Feb. 23 at Sinai Hospital of complications from a hip fracture. She was 89.

For the past 19 years, Mrs. Kaufman, a part-time volunteer with the center located in the Red Cross of Central Maryland headquarters in Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore, worked to bring closure for families whose relatives were victims of the Nazis.

"Bess had been here since the center opened, and when she started, she was close to being 70 and wasn't a youngster," said Linda C. Klein, the center's director. "She came here and worked five days a week. She was just an extraordinary person."

Opened in 1990, the center, which is a national clearinghouse for those seeking information on lost family members, fields requests from U.S. citizens and foreigners.

Staffers and volunteers rely upon local Red Cross chapters, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has available the world's largest repository of Nazi documentation, and the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany.

"In our work, we handle paper, but Bess developed emotional connections with those seeking information. She wanted to know what happened to them as well and make it right," Ms. Klein said.

She described Mrs. Kaufman as being an "extraordinary detective and very resourceful."

Sometimes the news was not what a family had hoped to learn.

"Documenting someone's fate or that they had died was something families also needed to know. It's very hard work, and Bess brought everything she had to bear," Ms. Klein said. "She always went the extra mile."

Mrs. Kaufman was an indefatigable researcher, flipping names, trying different spellings and developing other creative research solutions.

"Every family's story is different ... from the others, and Bess saw that every new case was a new challenge," Ms. Klein said.

Answers did not always come easily, and in some cases could take years.

"She'd set aside a case and then pick it up again. It really was never out of her mind," Ms. Klein said.

In 1993, Mrs. Kaufman was responsible for reuniting Zbigniew Wawrzniak, who lived in Richmond, Va., and his sister, Stanislawa Elenora Bujinowski of Australia, who had last seen each other in Poland 45 years earlier.

They later traveled to the center and thanked Mrs. Kaufman for her efforts.

In recognition of her work, the center established a national award, and Mrs. Kaufman was the first recipient of the Bessie Kaufman Outstanding Volunteer Award.

Bessie Weiner, the daughter of a grocer, was born in Baltimore and raised on Dolphin Street. She was a 1936 graduate of Western High School and earned a teaching certificate in 1939 from what is now Towson University.

During World War II, she worked for the federal government in Washington. She was married in 1944 to Morris Kaufman, a U.S. Foreign Service officer.

She lived for many years in Honduras and Mexico, where her husband held diplomatic assignments. He died in 1982.

In 1969, the couple moved to Metuchen, N.J., where Mrs. Kaufman worked as intake supervisor for the Middlesex County Welfare Department in New Brunswick, N.J., until 1985, when she moved to a home on Park Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.

Mrs. Kaufman volunteered with Jewish Family Services and the Kosher Pantry for several years before joining the tracing center.

Services were Wednesday.

Surviving are two sons, David Z. Kaufman of Fairfax, Va., and Richard R. Kaufman of Sturbridge, Mass.; a sister, Hilda Hillman of Baltimore; and two granddaughters.

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